Thursday, March 30, 2023
Three men are headed for the remote desert town of New Jerusalem. They intend to rob the bank. A fourth accomplice is already waiting for them in the town.
The robbery does not go off very successfully. A bank teller is killed and one of the robbers is killed as well. The three survivors make their getaway, but with very little loot to show for their efforts.
Their problem is that survival is going to be difficult enough for three strong healthy men. The baby’s chances seem slim. The three outlaws face a long long trek through the desert, without food and with their water supply almost exhausted. Even worse, their only chance of finding water is to return to New Jerusalem and they know that as soon as they get there they’ll be hanged. Without the baby they might have a chance of reaching some other source of water, but with the baby there’s no choice at all. To save the baby they will have to return to New Jerusalem.
The movie tries to combine that basic sentimentality with some grittiness, but the sentimentality is inherent in the story.
The three lead actors are pretty good. Charles Bickford as Bob Sangster is the standout. Bob is both genuinely a very bad man and a very hard man which makes the redemption angle a bit more interesting.
This movie dates from the very early days of sound. It also dates from an era in which location shooting with primitive sound technology would have been quite a challenge.
Wyler rises to the challenge extremely well.
It’s a visually impressive movie with a very effective atmosphere of desolation. The desert is the enemy. It’s the real villain of the movie. It seems to be actively malevolent. There’s no romanticisation of nature in this movie.
Hell’s Heroes is not by any means a bad movie. It’s just not my cup of tea. If you don’t mind some sentimentality and some religious elements and you enjoy stories focused on redemption and sacrifice then you might well enjoy it a lot more than I did.
Sunday, March 26, 2023
Dennis Carson (Gable) is a rubber planter in Cochin-China, the southern part of what is now Vietnam. He’s a bit of a rough diamond. It’s a hard life and it attracts hard men. But it’s the life he’s used to. His life is totally disrupted by the arrival of two women. One woman would have been disturbing enough. Dennis does not approve of women on the plantation.
The first arrival is Vantine (Jean Harlow). She has more or less invited herself. She needs to lie low for a while after a misunderstanding with the police. Vantine is a sweet cheerful high-spirited whore. She makes herself at home.
The second arrival is Barbara Willis (Mary Astor). Her husband Gary (Gene Raymond) has taken up a position as some kind of assistant to Dennis. Dennis had no idea Gary was going to be fool enough to bring his wife with him. A rubber plantation is no place for a woman. Dennis would normally be anxious to get rid of her, except that he finds her very attractive. Of course she’s a married woman but it doesn’t occur to Dennis that that might be a problem.
Barbara is totally out of place in a jungle plantation. She should be shopping for clothes in Manhattan or taking tea in civilised surroundings. She’s never had any contact with rough uncivilised people. She’s certainly never met a man like Dennis Carson before. He’s so….manly. She starts to feel things she’s never felt before. It excites her.
Dennis would be better off with Vantine. She’s a whore but she’s a good-natured whore. She could handle life on the plantation. And she could handle a man like Dennis.
Things get pretty tense. Vantine is consumed by jealousy. Dennis plots to get Gary out of the way for a few weeks. Then he decides he’ll have to have it out with Gary. He figures Gary will be a bit upset for a while about having his wife stolen from him but he’ll get over it.
You know how it’s all going to end, or at least you think you do. But this is pre-code Hollywood. The rules of narrative were quite different. Writers not only had more freedom in dealing with sexual subject matter, they had a lot more freedom when it came to plot development and endings. This movie would have ended very very differently once the Production Code came into force.
Gable and Harlow are unbelievably sexy, and they’re funny. Harlow is dazzling. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Mary Astor but she’s terrific here as a woman who has always been ladylike and totally under control but suddenly finds herself swept away by lust. She’s like a cat on heat.
Being a pre-code movie Red Dust is delightfully open about sex. If the movie hadn’t already made it blindingly obvious that Vantine is a prostitute the point is hammered home when Dennis pays her for her services. We’re also left in no doubt whatever that Dennis and Barbara have not only slept together, they’ve been sleeping together regularly for weeks.
This movie was remade in the 50s as Mogambo. Mogambo isn't terrible but compared to Red Dust it's bland and dull and sexless.
Red Dust is overheated and dripping with sweaty eroticism. It’s also funny and charming. One of the great pre-code movies. Very highly recommended.
Red Dust is available on DVD in the Warner Archive series and it looks very very good.
Wednesday, March 22, 2023
Sissi made sixteen-year-old Romy Schneider a major star. The male lead is Karlheinz Böhm, best-known to English-speaking audiences as the star of Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom.
The heimatfilm (or homeland film) was an incredibly popular film genre in West Germany and Austria in the 1950s. It’s a genre that has for decades been despised by German film scholars and critics and it’s a genre that was passionately loathed by the intellectuals who supported the so-called New German Cinema that emerged in the 60s. To them it represented everything they hated about the German film industry of the 1950s.
Much of this loathing was simply intellectual snobbery. Intellectuals tend to be enraged by the kinds of movies that audiences actually enjoy. In the case of the heimatfilm there was also the fact that this was a genre aimed very much at a female audience. The condescension with which critics and film scholars regarded Hollywood “women’s pictures” was mirrored by a similar condescension in Germany towards movies such as the heimatfilm.
Heimatfilms were a mixture of romantic melodrama and comedy and were determinedly optimistic in tone. They were lavish productions with lots of location shooting in picturesque countryside and they looked gorgeous.
As the movie opens Duchess Ludovika is hoping to marry her daughter Helene (known as Nene) to the handsome young Emperor Franz Joseph. But it is Nene’s high-spirited kid sister Sissi (Romy Schneider) who catches the emperor’s eye. It seems hopeless since the Emperor’s mother, the Archduchess Sophie, has decided he’s going to marry Nene. The young emperor usually does what his mother tells him to do, but this time things might be different. He has fallen head-over-heels in love with Sissi. He really is determined to marry her.
His mother does not approve of Sissi, considering her to be uncouth, headstrong and rebellious. She is of course all of those things.
The story plays out like a fairy tale. A handsome emperor and a beautiful spirited princess in love, having to battle the emperor’s imperious and rather scary mother who is determined to thwart their romance and with the beautiful princess’s sister as her rival for the handsome emperor’s love. The settings look like they’re straight out of a fairy tale. The whole movie takes place in what is in effect a fairytale world. This is a gloriously frothy insanely romantic movie which makes no concessions whatsoever to historical accuracy or to the real world. And that’s its charm.
Incidentally Sissi’s mother in the movie is played by Magda Schneider, who was Romy Schneider’s real-life mother.
There’s some comic relief from Josef Meinrad as Major Böckl, the bumbling chief of palace security, and from Gustav Knuth and Sissi’s father Duke Max, a bit of a bumpkin but rather wise in his own way. And the comic relief is genuinely amusing.
Had it been made in Hollywood this movie would have been shot in Technicolor but being Austrian it was shot in Agfacolor which has a softer slightly more pastel look which matches the tone of the movie perfectly. I have no idea what the budget was but this movie certainly looks lavish and expensive.
If you’re in the mood to indulge yourself in a lightweight feelgood fluffy romance with a fairytale vibe then this movie is just what you’re looking for. And it has Romy Schneider. Sissi is recommended.
Saturday, March 18, 2023
Wednesday, March 15, 2023
To say that Captain Jim Fitzpatrick (Walter Huston) is a hardboiled cop would be putting it mildly. He’s not just hardboiled, he’s impetuous and obsessive. And he’s obsessed with putting big-time mobster Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt) behind bars. Fitzpatrick is honest but he’s prepared to stretch the rules a little to get results.
His attempts to nail Belmonte for the murder of four bootleggers backfire, and Fitzpatrick finds himself transferred to the quietest precinct the Chief of Police can find, where he can’t get himself into hot water.
His brother Ed Fitzpatrick (Wallace Ford) is a cop as well.
Perhaps not altogether wisely Ed Fitzpatrick pays a visit to Daisy’s home. He falls for her considerable and very obvious charms. Given that this is Jean Harlow it would be difficult for any man to resist those charms. Seducing Ed is child’s play.
Jim Fitzpatrick hits the headlines after foiling a bank robbery and the moral reformers push for him to be made Chief of Police. His job is to clean up the town. People are having fun and someone has to put a stop to that.
It all leads up to a finale that is one of the most extraordinary you’ll see in any gangster movie. Jim has a plan to nail Belmonte. It’s breathtakingly ruthless. Jim will use any methods, any methods at all, to get the result he wants.
Wallace Ford is very good as Ed Fitzpatrick but it’s Walter Huston and Jean Harlow who take centre stage. Huston manages to be incredibly intense without resorting to any histrionics. In the same year he played a very similar role as an obsessed lawman in the superb western Law and Order, a movie which has strong thematic affinities with this one.
There’s some classic pre-code dialogue. Ed grabs Daisy’s arms. She tells him he’s hurting her. He says she doesn’t like being hurt. She replies that sometimes it’s kinda fun, if it’s done in the right spirit.
This is an extremely violent brutal movie but it’s intelligent and provocative as well. Is Sam Belmonte the beast of the city, or is it Jim Fitzpatrick? Jim is entirely humourless and he’s utterly convinced that he is right. He has convinced himself that any methods can be justified, no matter how brutal. It never occurs to him that he may have become an inhuman monster.
This movie is available on DVD in the Warner Archive series, with a very good transfer.
The Beast of the City is one of the most interesting of pre-code gangster films. Had it been made by Warner Brothers it might have been a major hit but MGM was the wrong studio for it. Very highly recommended.
Friday, March 10, 2023
The setting is Canada, in 1885. For a couple of centuries the Métis have lived in the Canadian Northwest and they’ve been more or less left alone to live their lives as they choose. The Métis are a mixture of European and Indian. They’re trappers and they’re not interested in the benefits of civilisation. Until the late 19th century they were scarcely aware of being part of Canada. Suddenly they’ve become very much aware of it, and they want no part of being Canadian. They rebelled in 1869 and they’re ready to rebel again.
Keeping order in this territory is the job of a detachment of Canada’s North West Mounted Police, about fifty men.
Inspector Cabot would like to avoid trouble. He doesn’t have enough men to put down a full-scale rebellion. The real worry is that the local tribes, the Cree and the Blackfoot, may join the rebellion.
These romantic dramas will become significant when Dusty Rivers (Gary Copper) suddenly arrives on the scene. Dusty is a Texas Ranger. He’s a long way from Texas but he’s on the trail of man wanted for murder in Texas, a man named Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft). That man is Louvette’s brother. And Dusty takes quite a shine to April Logan. She finds the lanky Texas Ranger pretty attractive. Sergeant Brett is not happy. Not happy at all.
To make things really explosive, the rebels have managed to get hold of a Gatling Gun. Fifty North West Mounted Police troopers won’t have much chance against that.
The already complicated plot gets more complicated. There’s treachery, there’s cowardice, there’s thwarted love, there’s jealousy. The rebels set an elaborate trap for the North West Mounted Police.
And there’s spectacle. This is a DeMille movie so it’s not a case of spectacle at the expense of content. The spectacle is the content.
This was DeMille’s first movie in Technicolor.
In many ways this movie has more in common with movies about British colonial wars, movies like Gunga Din and King of the Khyber Rifles, than with westerns. It’s not really a western at all. This is a grand adventure movie.
The ending is rather unexpected and it works.
Umbrella Entertainment in Australia have released this movie in their inexpensive but excellent Six Shooter Classics series.
Like most of DeMille’s movies this one is misunderstood. DeMille didn’t make movies the way modern critics and reviewers think movies should be made. Personally I like DeMille’s way of making movies. Recommended.
Wednesday, March 8, 2023
It was released in the same years as Hitchcock's Psycho. There are similarities between the two movies but the differences are profound, and extremely interesting
Peeping Tom is actually the more interesting movie.
My full review can be found at Cult Movie Reviews.
Sunday, March 5, 2023
The subject is feuding. The civil war has just ended. Mark Hayden (Egon Brecher) is returning to his home in Kentucky but he has no intention of staying there. He’s tired of killing and he wants nothing to do with the Hayden-Colby feud that has gone on for generations. He’s going to move his family west.
At this precise moment yet another killing in the Hayden-Colby feud occurs. Jed Colby (Noah Beery) kills grandpappy Spelvin. The Haydens naturally expect Mark to go gunning for Jed Colby. Instead, much to the horror of the entire community, Mark goes to the police. Jed Colby gets a fifteen year prison sentence. Jed Coby is enraged. It ain’t honourable. You don’t involve the police in a family feud. Most of the Haydens agree.
This makes Mark more determined to leave Kentucky. He takes his two youngest children ands heads for Nevada. His oldest son, Lynn, has to stay behind to look after Grandma Spelvin.
Jed conducts a war of nerves against Mark Hayden. He steals his cattle. He’s hoping that Mark will come gunning for him.
Tensions are rising and trouble seems unavoidable when Lynn Hayden (Randolph Scott) arrives in Nevada.
On his way to his father’s ranch Lynn encounters Ellen Colby. He doesn’t know she’s a Colby and she doesn’t know he’s a Hayden. There’s an obvious immediate attraction between them.
She thinks that maybe she’d like to be a lady. She asks one of the ranch hands about it. He tells her all about his mother, who was a great lady. It’s an amusing scene because it’s obvious that he was raised in a whorehouse and that his mother was a high-class whore. This is a pre-code western.
The fact that it’s a pre-code western also explains the nude scene. It’s a fairly tame nude scene but it’s more daring than anything you’d see in the 40s and 50s.
Jed Colby has acquired a partner, Jim Daggs (Jack La Rue). He’s a nasty piece of work and he has his own agenda. He wants to marry Ellen Colby but she wants nothing to do with him.
The romance between Lynn Hayden and Ellen Colby doesn’t progress smoothly. She knows she’s in love with him but he’s a Hayden. She can’t get past that.
The violence keeps escalating. And escalating. If you like action scenes there are plenty of them. There’s a very high body count.
Randolph Scott is pretty good. Noah Beery is nicely obsessed as Jed Colby. Jack La Rue plays Jim Daggs like a melodrama villain. I kept expecting him to start twirling his moustache. It’s not a good performance but it’s fun. Buster Crabbe plays Lynn’s younger brother Bill. I liked Esther Ralston as Ellen - she captures her wildness and her gradual discovery of her femininity extremely well. Look out for an uncredited Shirley Temple in a bit part.
The Reel Vault DVD is terrible but there aren’t many options if you want to see this movie. Pre-code westerns don’t seem to be regarded as worthy of restoration and decent DVD/Blu-Ray releases. If only someone could figure out how to promote these movies as film noir we’d suddenly get special edition Blu-Rays.
This is a very dark grim movie. This is a revenge western with multiple layers of revenge. There’s an air of hopelessness about it. These people just won’t stop killing each other.
To the Last Man is a grown-up western and not being overly constrained by the Production code helps. Nobody in this movie worries about making gunfights fair. If you see an enemy, shoot him in the back. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, March 1, 2023
Richard Smith (Edward Everett Horton) is a prominent lawyer. He’s a respectable member of the community. He’s a faithful husband and he doesn’t drink. At least he’s respectable until eight o’clock every night. Then he suddenly changes. He becomes a playboy. He chases skirt and he drinks and haunts speakeasies. His mother-in-law Mrs Mantel (Maude Eburne) keeps a very close watch on him.
Richard’s wife Madeleine (Esther Ralston) is out of town at the moment. That means that Mrs Mantel will have to watch him very closely indeed.
Richard has just employed a new secretary, Minty (Patsy Ruth Miller). He notices that she wiggles when she walks. He forbids her to wiggle. Of course once the clock reaches eight o’clock he decides he likes her wiggling very much indeed.
Minty’s friend Diane O’Dare (Laura La Plante) is an actress in need of a divorce. Minty assures her that Richard will arrange it.
Then he has a stroke of luck. He has a new client, a Mr Zero (also played by Edward Everett Horton). Mr Zero makes his living in vaudeville, doing impersonations of famous men. Richard will take Mr Zero’s case for nothing, if Mr Zero does him a little favour. All he has to do is pretend to be Richard for the evening. Then Richard can keep his dates while Mrs Mantel will think he’s been home all evening.
What he doesn’t know is that Mr Zero is Diane’s husband. And Mr Zero has no idea that while he’s masquerading as Richard, Richard will be on a date with Zero’s wife.
Lonely Wives has one huge problem - Maude Eburne. She’s excruciatingly awful and incredibly irritating.
On the other hand Esther Ralston, Patsy Ruth Miller and Laura La Plante give bright breezy sexy performances. Spencer Charters as Andrews, the drunken butler, overdoes things at times but he’s OK.
And the movie has Edward Everett Horton. He’s in sparkling form. He’s an absolute delight.
Russell Mack’s career as a director came to an abrupt halt in 1934. I have no idea why. He lived for another forty years. It’s impossible to make a fair judgment on his directing ability based on this film because the staginess is so deliberate. He does at least keep things moving along, and for this sort of material that’s enough.
Whether you like this movie or not will depend a great deal on how you respond to bedroom farces. This is a pretty good example of the genre, with a witty and reasonably naughty script by Walter DeLeon (based on a play by A.H. Woods. It’s a pre-code movie so there’s plenty of spicy dialogue. Bedroom farces tend to be very stagey. That’s almost unavoidable. Lonely Wives is definitely stagey but it still manages to be lively. If you do enjoy farce then it's highly recommended. A must-see for Edward Everett Horton fans.